I'm often asked two very pertinent questions: How did you get your book published and How did you get an agent to represent you?
Pretty much the answer to one is the answer to the other. Basically, I got published because I got an agent to represent me.
Now, it isn't a hard and fast rule, and this is only from my own personal point of view, so take my way as only one way.
Gone are the days when publishing houses employed readers to wade through the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts, and these days they rely on literary agents to weed through the mounds of submissions, and bring them only the best of the best. Now, then, agents don't have hundreds of readers on hand to do the reading for them, so something sent to them must firstly grab their attention, and secondly hold it. It's no good sending through something and say 'I know it starts slowly but it gets really fast after page 59' because, quite frankly they won't read that far. Your story must capture their attention from the first page. Make sure that there is something there: action, an intriguing question, a promise of things to come, on your first page, because if there's no hook, you can forget catching their attention.
There tends to be a standard protocol for sending submissions to agents. Check on their websites, check in a book like The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook where it tells you each agent's submission procedure, and stick to their rules. If they say 'No Unsolicited Submissions' send them a query letter first, ask them politely if they'd be interested in reading your book (I'll go deeper into this later), plus the standard first three chapters and short (1 page) synopsis. Don't just send them your entire manuscript and hope for the best - it likely won't even get looked at. If they say electronic submissions only - send your query in the form of an email. If they say 'no email submissions', then don't email them, send hard copy. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprsied how many aspiring authors don't check the rules.
Anyway, there are far more knowledgeable articles on the above subject than I can do justice to so I'll leave it at that. Look at John Connolly's website for a great article on 'How To Get Published'. Instead, I'll give you a potted history of my road to publication so you can see what I did. If you want to emulate it, go ahead, it might get you the agent you need.
I've been writing since I was a child. Short stories, comic books, songs, poems, novels, articles, film scripts, you name it I've given it a go. Throughout the years I had a couple successes with articles in Martial Arts magazines, and a local magazine, but I always longed to be a fiction author.
Years ago, I started sending off short stories to competitions, but with no success. I then plucked up the courage to send some of my novels to publishers. Ten years ago, they still had submissions editors at some of the publishing houses and I did get one editor interested, but things finally went arse-end up and my aspirations fizzled out.
I continued sending off the letter, synopsis and sample chapters but could get no-one interested. I then realised to get anywhere, I needed representation from a reputable agent.
Anyone read Clive Barker? I once sent some stuff to his agent only to be told my writing was 'too dark' even for her. But that's another story.
Two things happened - call it a dual epiphany - I realised that the books I was writing weren't commercially viable, and I'd been aiming myself at the wrong agents.
I've already related the tale of how I decided I needed to come up with a commercially viable series that would interest a publisher in investing in me and my books, so won't go over that again. I also realised that I'd need a top agent if I was ever going to get anywhere.
Three years ago, Simon Kernick had hit the big time and was in every bookshop I ever visited. He had been picked as a 'Richard and Judy Book Club' summer read. He was storming the charts. I wondered, who is Simon's agent then? I researched and found that he was represented by Luigi Bonomi. A little more research later and I found that Luigi had been nominated as 'Agent of the Year', so I thought, why not go to the mover and shaker?
I was bricking it. I thought I'd get laughed all the way back to my little corner of Cumbria, but I bit the bullet and went for it.
I found Luigi's website, studied his submission protocol and stuck to it.
Next, I sat down and wrote a letter I hoped would say enough to catch his attention without going on too much. In brief, I mentioned the years that I'd been writing, the number of books I'd written and that I now felt I'd served my 'time' and learned my craft and was now looking to take my career further with professional representation. I outlined my plans for a series of books featuring a sustainable character firmly in the crime thriller mode, as I believed there was a gap in the market at that time for a 'British' thriller writer. I also explained that, because my books were international in aspect then they could also appeal to an international readership. I then mentioned who my books would appeal to, and mentioned some of the contemporary authors writing in a similar genre. I rounded it off with a brief description of myself and my background, and gave my martial arts coaching, my security and police careers as examples of how I could be marketed. Basically I was pitching a 'business' idea, the way you would to your bank manager when requesting funding for a business venture.
I rounded off my letter with the question, would he be interested in seeing the full book? Along with the letter, I sent a synopsis of the book and the first three chapters. And a SAE for their return.
Ok. Things didn't end there.
Some newspapers reported that I was 'saved from the slush pile by the agent's wife', making it all sound a little lurid. To put the record straight, Luigi had looked at my submission, but had discarded it but was urged to take another look at it by his wife - who hadn't popped in for lunch, but who is a respected editor in her own right - after she read my query letter and saw how committed to making a success of my writing I was. Luigi requested to see the entire manuscript, which I sent off forthwith.
Now, here's where the real secret lies. Luigi got back to me and said that the book required a major rewrite to make it ready for publication and was I prepared to give it a go. I answered yes. And good that I did because I was being tested.
I rewrote the book and delivered it.
Luigi had it read by five independent readers who gave feedback on the book. All had differences of opinion, but where they crossed over, I then rewrote the problems they'd found to put them right.
I went back and forward for five months, rewriting, editing and polishing, all under the guidance of Luigi - with no promise of representation at the end of the process.
I was asked to go and meet with Luigi - to see if I was willing to do the 700 mile round trip, to see if I was determined to work hard, to see if I was a fruit-cake or not - which I dutifully did. Again we discussed my ideas for future books and how I saw a future for my character, and I talked at length at how hard I was willing to work in order to achieve a successful writing career.
Finally, when my 'product' was ready - I'm pretty sure that Luigi was already putting out the feelers to publishing houses - I was sent the 'terms and conditions of representation', which I was asked to sign and return if I wished representation. I had them back to Luigi within hours via fax.
Within only a few days, my book went to auction and three large publishing houses bid against each other for publishing rights. And that was the start of my publishing career.
Now, in the saying it doesn't sound much, but it took me years to learn the craft, a few more to practice it, then a few more to get things right. I was lucky, but it wasn't all luck, it was also hard work, grit and determination. I knew what I wanted to do, and that evidently shone through when I was going through the process towards representation from Luigi.
So...bullet point time (without the bullet points):
Research agents who represent other authors in your genre
Check and double check their submission procedure and get it right
Send the required material in the correct format
Send a query letter telling the agent your background, plans for the future and any special interest that might help sell your book/s
Send a tight synopsis of your book
Send the correct number of sample chapters.
Make sure your submission is as professional as possible as basically you are requesting to enter into a business arrangement beneficial to you both.
Don't send out multiple submissions (not a hard and fast rule but it can come back and bite you on the arse further down the line if you do)
Be prepared to work hard and do take onboard the suggestions and advice offered by the agent.
Do not pester the agent for a decision, let their decision be based on the merits of your query pack. If they ask to see the full manuscript, send it and mark it 'requested material' so it doesn't get lost among the other hundred envelopes landing on the agent's doorstep.
If you're invited to go speak to the agent, do so. Don't make excuses. Go.
Work hard, do everything you can (legal and with dignity) to show how dedicated you are to your chosen profession. Then wait. Yes, expect to wait, because not everyone gets a deal in a few days like I did (after five months of to-ing and fro-ing don't forget), and don't expect huge advances. Huge advances are often reported in the newspapers but they're the exception to the norm. Don't go planning on writing while reclining on a beach with a cold one at hand. The reality is you'll be slogging your guts out at your usual writing place, holding down another job and still wishing for a mega-seller or three.
If an agent demands payment to read your work, don't do it. Anyone that does this is a shark.
Steer clear of 'internet agents' who promise to represent you for an up front fee. They usually ask you to send your book as an email, tell you how wonderful your book is, then ask you for money for administration purposes. Tell them to F**k Off, because they're charlatans and crooks. Any bonefide, honest agent won't ask you for money up-front. They will make money for you and take their commission from your earnings.
Hope this helps, and answers the question some of you have been hoping to ask.
Something I haven't mentioned: I sent my books out to dozens of publishers and to dozens of agents, prior to coming up with that dual epiphany and not a one of them was interested in publishing or representing me. Funnily enough, now that I'm a published author, those self-same publishers and agents have asked why I didn't go to them first. Go figure.